America has long been known as the land of opportunity, offering life-changing possibilities to people from all corners of the world. In the 1890s, New York City became a beacon of hope for many seeking a better life. However, this influx of immigrants led to severe overpopulation and dire living conditions.

One such immigrant was Jacob Riis, a 21-year-old Dane who arrived in New York in 1870 with just $40 in his pocket. Like many others, Riis found himself in an overcrowded city where jobs and housing were scarce and conditions were often squalid. Initially aspiring to be a carpenter, Riis was forced to take on various odd jobs to survive. His fortunes changed when he landed a position as a trainee journalist with the ‘New York News Association.’

Riis quickly proved his talent and became a skilled journalist, known in many newspapers. He used his new platform to shed light on the harsh realities faced by New York’s immigrant population. Leveraging the latest photographic technology of the time, including the pioneering use of flash photography, Riis captured vivid images of tenement life. These photos provided a stark visual narrative that words alone could not convey.

In 1890, Riis compiled his groundbreaking work into the book “How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York.” This powerful exposé brought significant attention to the living conditions and social issues in New York City, sparking reforms and raising public awareness.

Today, we share with you 25 of Riis’s most compelling photographs. Each image tells a story of resilience, hardship, and the quest for a better life amidst the challenges of tenement living. Scroll down to witness these powerful snapshots of history and let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

More info & Photo courtesy: Museum Syndicate

Portrait of Jacob A. Riis.
The Baby’s Playground
Girl from the West 52 Street Industrial School.
“Police Station Lodger, A Plank for a Bed”
Blind Beggar.
Bunks in a Seven-Cent Lodging House, Pell Street.
Family Making Artificial Flowers.
Girl and a Baby on a Doorstep.
Hester Street.
The Short Tail Gang Under a Pier.
“Bandit’s Roost”.
Bohemian Cigarmakers at Work in their Tenement.
Boys from the Italian Quarter
Didn’t Live Nowhere.
Fighting Tuberculosis on the Roof.
Five Cents Lodging, Bayard Street.
Home of an Italian Ragpicker.
In Sleeping Quarters – Rivington Street Dump.
In the Sun Office, 3 AM.
Minding Baby, Cherry Hill.
Children’s Playground in Poverty Cap, New York.
Dens of Death, New York.
Pupils in the Essex Market Schools in a Poor Quarter of New York.
“Twelve-Year-Old Boy Pulling Threads in a Sweat Shop”
An Old Rear Tenement in Roosevelt Street.
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